Sunday, 19 April 2015

Miss Saigon (play)

When the two main characters have fallen in love in the first 15 minutes of a musical, you know it’s only going to go emotionally downhill from there.  

I went into Miss Saigon knowing two things: it was about an American soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese girl during the Vietnam war, and that it had an original run on the West End 25 years ago. After the show I found out another fact that explained a lot; Schönberg and Boublil created it, the same two men who gave us the barrel-of-laughs musical that is Les Misérables.

Quick warning, this is not a musical you want to see with your parents. Unless you are comfortable watching with your parents women in their underwear dance in a brothel, which you may be.

As with Les Mis, Miss Saigon is sung-through, unrelenting in giving us teary power ballads and dance numbers. But unlike Les Mis; hell, unlike most good musicals, Miss Saigon lacked any standout tracks, which is odd for a musical where the music doesn’t stop. There was nothing that I was humming for days after.

But what it lacked in musical panache, it made up with excellent story telling. Miss Saigon took you on a journey with Kim, the young Vietnamese prostitute, and her doomed love with Chris, the American GI. Eva Noblezada played Kim, giving an astonishingly moving performance from someone who has never had a professional theatre role before. Another stand-out performance was Jon Jon Briones as the Engineer, who’s mix of sleaze and humour never stopped to entertain.

The staging took you into the depths of Saigon, from the seedy Dreamland Club, to the infamous helicopter scene outside the American Embassy, intersected with trips to America and Thailand. It was the little touches that really impacted the underlying serious tone of the musical. The point where Saigon transitioned to Ho Chi Minh was marked with a militaristic dance in front of a giant golden face of Ho Chi Minh, only to be replaced later in the play with a gaping face of the Statue of Liberty while the Engineer dances in front of it singing about the American Dream. We are left wondering if the Engineer is left yearning for an ideal of a place that is a reflection of the one he left behind.

Miss Saigon is full of morally questionable characters. We are tricked into liking those who have committed crimes, disliking those who have done nothing wrong. In the world of war, Miss Saigon never fails to remind us there are no victors.

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review: The Leaders' Debate

It wasn’t David Cameron’s visit to the Queen a couple of days ago that signified the beginning of the campaigning period, it was tonight. And did we get some interesting outcomes.

The SNP shot out off nowhere like an AID’s-scapegoating comment out of Nigel Farage’s mouth (yeah, that happened). Nicola Sturgeon was a breath of fresh air backing up her opinions on everything from immigration to education. The issue of the debate was that despite the range of policies on offer, most people (*cough* Nigel Farage especially *cough*) failed to consistently give sound reasoning on why their policies would 1) be best, and 2) be implemented.

Which is why Green’s Aussie Natalie Bennett fell down. As much as she’s the liberals' sweetheart, giving us a lot of ideas (most of which are pretty nice and true), the Green’s have yet to prove how any of their policies would, well… work. It follows Bennett’s previous disaster on LBC, and although she pulled herself back, the lack of clarity of where the Green’s would get the money from, bar taxing the rich, means they have a long way to go.

Speaking of the rich, let’s look at their poster boy, and current PM, David Cameron. Probably the best speaker in the room, Cameron exudes the authority that he should be in charge, unlike his slightly hapless-looking counterpart, Ed Milliband. Cameron stuck to his guns, no doubt pleasing the Tory supporters, and his echoing words of that Britain needs a stronger economy played through the debate.  Milliband did well, but shockingly neither the PM or Leader of the Opposition gave us anything as interesting as the anti-establishment parties, or enough to out-perform the other, meaning the polls are going to be as tight as ever.

Oh yeah, Nick Clegg. Sadly slightly forgettable, but I don’t know if I’m biased as a 21-year-old-student paying three times the amount of debt of someone a year older than her. Okay, bias aside, Clegg wasn’t bad. But he needed to be better than okay. The problem is, Clegg is never going to rip himself away from the fact that he’s been supporting a right-wing government, so any attempts to move back to the liberal centre-left where the party belongs is not going to sit well with voters. Not good enough, deputy PM. Sadly, I'm going to group Wood in here too, although she did make a good impression on Twitter, and hopefully on Wales, Plaid Cymru was useful to highlight the plight of Wales, but failed to live up to her Scottish counterpart.

As for Farage, I’m not going to give him any more airtime than he deserves.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Defying Expectations: Science Biopics

Recently our appetite for science-fiction has been insatiable. From the Marvel franchise to Interstellar, we love to watch people push the boundaries of science. But what about the real-life scientists superheroes, without which the modern world would be very different? Science has always been the unglamorous sibling of humanities in culture, with many filmmakers being first to the post with biopics of their heroes; recent ones on the Beat Generation (Kill Your Darlings) and Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock), but now it’s the scientists turn to step into the limelight, with both The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything sweeping up handfuls of awards.

It’s no secret that I’m a scientist, both particle physics and mathematics are topics I study, so I was excited to see scientists make it to the big screen. The Imitation Game follows Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) codebreaking discoveries to eventually founding the beginnings of computer science, whilst The Theory of Everything follows Steven Hawking’s struggles with his disability, and the pressure of it and his work upon his marriage.

There’s an ill-informed idea that science is inaccessible for the majority of people, which is why it’s probably taken so long to produce a film on scientists. But both of these films deal with extraordinary minds and overcoming incredible adversity, and people will buy into a good story no matter what the content. Despite it being about scientists, there’s very little science, both of these films are ultimately about the humanity and challenges that faced two men, who revolutionised the world we live in.
Both men are mind-boggling. As The Imitation Game progresses, you get more of an insight into how challenging it was to break the Enigma Code, and the hard work and genius needed to do it, fathering the computer, only for to see Turing, a war hero, life destroyed by the horrific penalties for being gay. As for Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), a man who was given two years to live; continued with his life, marriage, and work, and year after year kept defying everyone’s expectations, whilst changing the way we understand time and space.

Maybe the audience is becoming more comfortable with science. Now with children learning to code based upon the work of Turing, and Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time and Space is one of the biggest bestsellers, science has become more accessible. And let’s not forget the endless fascination with science-fiction. People are starting to question more, wanting to understand more about the world and future discoveries that may impact their lives. And if that’s not science, I don’t know what is.

There’s a criticism that we raise actors and musicians to unnecessary heights, in a way we don’t for extraordinary people like, say brain surgeons. Whilst I don’t think the social construct is going to change anytime soon, I’m glad that we’re drawing some attention to the  real life superheroes who have led lives which without we would be living very differently.

Now maybe they could do a film on a woman, ey? Marie Curie or Ava Lovelace coming soon?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pop Confessional: A Brief History of My Music Taste

I like pop music. There I’ve said it. Call the hipster-army-brigade and get them to arrest me. I admit to surfing the mainstream.

And this is something that has taken me a while to come to terms with. The reason it took me so long to come to terms with it, is because I was acting far more pretentiously than I had any right to be.

There’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking anything. Everyone is entitled to have their own opinions. Something I’ve ranted about previously is when people start to enforce their opinions onto someone else to make them feel lesser. In the video it’s about preferring YA to classic fiction, in this it’s about preferring mainstream pop to whatever’s “cooler”.

I’m not saying pop music has more artistic merit, or is cleverer, or is better than any other type of music. I’m saying I get a personal pleasure from it, which shouldn’t be taken away from me by someone saying what I feel is “stupid”.

I say this as a person who previously scorned pop, choosing to plug in my headphones instead of giving it a chance.

My story starts in the 90’s and early 00’s, the decade of my birth, and the years of Backstreet Boys, S Club 7, and Britney Spears. At a child who’s age was yet to enter double-digits, I had no problem with my jam being “Reach For the Stars”. I grew up on cotton-candy pop and loved it.

The dark ages appeared in the form of my teenage years. I thought I was getting more angsty and grungier in music taste, but only in my head. For my thirteenth birthday I got a mini stereo-system and my love with music was sealed. As I went through my teen years, my music taste rapidly changed from bubblegum pop, to more pop-rock, to just rock. A good indicator is the first albums I got with my stereo system: Avril Lavigne, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Razorlight, and Green Day. (I know, it's a strange selection).

I went hardcore with my music taste. I wanted to like “good” music. Except I had no idea what good music was. Since everyone I knew was listening to rock, I assumed that was it. I bought Linkin Park, Blink 182, and Sum 41. I felt proud of myself. This was what is good, right?

In 2009 I heard a musician who was initially was a guilty pleasure, and then became a proud love of mine. Taylor Swift released “Love Story”. There was something sincere in what she sang, something catchy, and a country-twang that brought me to my childhood when my parents blasted out Shania Twain (if anyone taught me not to care about my music taste, it was them).

I was ashamed. But I couldn’t work out why. Taylor Swift wrote all her songs, like the rest of the artists I listened too. Her songs had a story and meaningful lyrics, which I could relate too. I found her music fun to listen to. And then I realised that I had no reason to be ashamed, I was allowed to like whatever I wanted to, other people’s opinions be damned.

And then I had a country music phase, but we won’t go into that.

My music taste currently is a combination of a lot of things from my musical past. You can find everything from Mumford and Sons, to Katy Perry, to 30 Second to Mars on my iPod. And if anyone tells you that you shouldn’t like something, to quote T-Swift, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate… Shake it off”.

P.S. If anyone wants to try something new, here’s The Pierces, an amazing folk-rock band.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Dorothy Must Die

Dorothy Must Die (Dorothy Must Die, #1)
Age Group: YA
Genre: Fantasy
Pub Date: April 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins

Let’s start with a really shallow observation: I loved this cover. It really hit the spot with what the book was truly about; a cultural icon gone bad. I normally complain about books having a great premise and then never living up to its full potential. I’m pleased to report this is not the case with Dorothy Must Die.

Amy Gumm is a girl from Kansas (of course). Unwanted and feeling like she doesn’t belong, Amy is waiting for the day she can escape. Which she does. Through a tornado. Amy ends up in Oz with, her version of Toto, a rat called Star. But Oz is not what the Julie Garland film portrayed it to be. Gone are the chirpy munchkins and the Technicolor dreamland, replaced with darkness and despair, under the malevolent rule of Dorothy. Amy gets recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked for one task. That’s right, you guessed it, Dorothy Must Die.

Paige has altered the original world into is a fascinating one. The twists on all the well-known characters are clever, especially how the Wizards gifts have altered the Tinman, Scarecrow, and Lion. For some reason, Paige decided to overtly-sexualise Dorothy, probably a cheap shot to damage your childhood a bit more, but I’ll let that slide. It was all brilliantly twisted and morphed, from the freakish Perm-a-Smile (giving you a plastic grin) to the Tinman’s brutal army. 

The obvious comparison would be with Wicked (which I have not read, but I’ve seen the musical). While Wicked is more of a clever backstory to the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Must Die is a whole new ballgame. The plot borders on a horror, with graphic scenes of violence, and this is a way Oz has never been imagined before. For a novel that was heavily borrowing on someone else’s world, it was really original.

Unfortunately the exceptional detail is also the books biggest downfall. It’s too long. 450 pages are way too many for this sort of novel. It felt like she was stretching it out for an unknown reason. Parts which made the novel so good, started to become wearisome.

Take Amy, I liked Amy. She was cool, and had an interesting voice. She had her flaws and she had her charms. She was well-rounded, compared to a lot of female characters I sometimes see. However after 300 pages, she started to grate on me. The sarcastic-I’m-a-fighter voice soon became I’m-trying-too-hard-by-being-sarcastic. The other issue with the writing was that there was so many colloquialisms in Oz from American culture, that made no sense for it being there. “Oz History 101” for example. Unless Oz is taking part is following the American educational system, which I doubt.

Overall I liked Dorothy Must Die. If you’re a fan of the Wizard of Oz or Wicked or just really cool retellings, and don’t mind some waffle, this book is for you. 

Rating: 8/10

I received this copy from Harper 360 in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

DirectedJames Gunn
Produced: Kevin Feige
ScreenplayJames Gunn, Nicole Perlman
StarringChris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace

When I saw the trailer of Guardians I wasn’t too excited. When Marvel resurrected its big players by the form of massive Hollywood franchises, I had at least heard of them; The Avengers, Spider-Man, and X-Men. DC chose to go with big-players Batman and Superman. However, pre-trailer, Guardians of the Galaxy was unknown to me. On top of this, it looked a bit, well, daft. Is that a talking racoon? Is that a talking tree?

Boy, I was wrong, and you are too, if you are considering giving it a miss. Marvel has made its funniest summer blockbuster yet. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't take itself seriously, and the result being it’s hilarious. It’s funnier than many self-professed “comedies”, and by switching between gags and out-of-this-world action, every moment is thoroughly entertaining.

So what’s it all about? Meet our misfits of the galaxy, the most unlikely band of heroes you will ever meet. Ex-criminals thrown together by mishaps and coincidence to become a thoroughly unwilling group, trying to protect the galaxy from a mysterious orb getting into the hands of Ronan the Accuser.

Chris Pratt stars as Peter Quill, also known as Star Lord (but no-one calls him that). Quill was abducted from Earth as a child in the 80’s, meaning he is perpetually stuck in the 80’s (leading to one of the best soundtracks to have ever featured in a superhero movie). Quill’s moral code is a bit dodgy, but his heart is in the right place, a refreshing change from all recent self-sacrificing superheroes who are concerned with the greater good. Pratt is purely funny, all quips and dancing around the screen (most of the time literally), moving through physical and verbal comedy with ease.

Quill is joined by Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), the aforementioned genetically-engineered racoon, who is obsessed by weapons and money; Groot, who is Rocket’s muscle and has three words during the whole film, which I’m sure was a challenging role for someone as notable as Vin Diesel; Drax, a blue alien caught up with righting the wrongs against him, and more importantly, does not get metaphors; and Zoe Saldana’s kick-ass Gamora, who provides the necessary voice of sanity.

Marvel may have not invested as much into Guardian’s as it has done with its bigger brothers, but that doesn’t detract from the usual Marvel antics, with explosion and colour. This film took you on a trip around the Galaxy that Marvel brags about it in its other films, but we have yet to witness, and it’s just as wonderful and inventive as the hints we’ve previously had.

Just as the film doesn’t take itself seriously, it’s important that you don’t either. Yes it’s a bit crazy, it’s totally silly, highly irrelevant, but mostly incredibly fun.

Rating: 10/10

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah

Age Group: Adult
20747666Genre: Psychological Thriller/ Crime
Pub Date: April 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

The first few pages of The Telling Error described a grisly murder. A man has been killed, with a knife taped to him, except there he wasn’t killed by the knife. Bang in some mysterious writing on the wall, a few bizarre photographs on the computer, and the victim being a celebrity, and we’ve got ourselves an unusual case. What makes it more unusual is the murder has been described as an ad on a dating website seeking the murderer. So a puzzle within a puzzle for the reader.

This is a proper psychological “who-dunnit” thriller. Lots of twisted characters, blurred lines, and suspense. The plot was great; each character was properly fleshed out with interesting motives and lots of twists. Just when I thought I knew who did it, I was immediately proved wrong.

Before we go any further, I would like to point out I had no idea that this was the 9th book in the series. I had never read or heard of the series before, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have requested this from NetGalley. Only now discovering the series, I’m pleased to find that I followed the book pretty well, and it does account for my slight gripes with it.

I found it hard to follow the detectives, but on reflection, this is because I didn’t know their previous stories, and the author probably took it for granted that I did. To be fair, if I was on my ninth book, I probably would have expected a reader to have read a couple of the others. I found their relationships confusing, and some points lost track of which one was which, but that didn’t detract from the overall brilliance of the book.

This book was primarily about Nikki though, a woman who has been having a string of emotional online affairs for kicks. Nikki was a brilliant and complex character, a woman who has been betrayed by her family, and is overly protective of hers, despite betraying them with her affair. She gets entangled in the murder investigation, due to one of her online dalliances implicating her. Nikki was easy to like and dislike at the same time, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for her, yet be annoyed at her actions. Her family and past was another thread to unravel, making Nikki become more and more complex as the story continued.

The Telling Error was surprisingly easy to read as a stand-alone, but I found myself being more interested in the side characters than the main detective, Simon. If you like a good psychological thriller, I definitely recommend this; however you may want to start with something earlier in the series, unlike me!

Rating: 8/10
I received this copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.